Unprocessed plant-based food keeps your heart healthier at any age

Basing your meals on unprocessed plant-based foods is healthy for your heart at any age, according to a duo of studies published in the Journal of the American Heart Association.

Image credits Arek Socha.

Eating meals rich in unprocessed plants, including fruits and vegetables, whole grains, low-fat dairy products, skinless poultry and fish, nuts, legumes, and non-tropical vegetable oils, is a good way to keep your heart healthy all throughout your life. New research says that eating such diets in young adulthood is associated with lower risks of developing cardiovascular disease in midlife.

Eat your veggies

“Earlier research was focused on single nutrients or single foods, yet there is little data about a plant-centered diet and the long-term risk of cardiovascular disease,” said Yuni Choi, Ph.D., lead author of one of the studies and a postdoctoral researcher in the division of epidemiology and community health at the University of Minnesota School of Public Health in Minneapolis.

The paper looked at the occurrence of heart disease in 4,946 adults, all of whom were enrolled in the Coronary Artery Risk Development in Young Adults (CARDIA) study. All participants were aged 18 to 30 at the time of enrollment in the study, were free of cardiovascular disease, and were also analyzed by education level (equivalent to more than high school vs. high school or less). The sample included 2,509 black adults and 2,437 white adults, and 54.9% of participants were women.

Each participant had eight follow-up exams between the enrollment period (1985-1986) and the study’s end (2015-16), which included lab tests, physical measurements, as well as assessments of their medical histories and lifestyle factors. The participants were not instructed to change their habits in any way, such as being told to include or exclude certain items from their diets, and were not told their scores on the diet measures during the trial, so as not to influence the outcome.

The quality of each participant’s diet was scored based on the A Priori Diet Quality Score (APDQS) composed of 46 food groups at years 0, 7 and 20 of the study. The food groups were classified into beneficial (fruits, vegetables, beans, nuts, and whole grains), neutral (such as potatoes, refined grains, lean meats, and shellfish), and adverse (fried potatoes, high-fat red meat, salty snacks, pastries, and soft drinks) based on what we know of their relationship to the risk of developing cardiovascular disease. Under this methodology, higher scores were indicative of diets that more heavily revolved around nutritionally rich plant-based items.

Based on the data from this study, two papers measured how healthy plant food consumption influences cardiovascular health, in young adults or postmenopausal women. Both of these groups saw benefits, the papers report, as members of both were less likely to develop cardiovascular disease when they ate more healthy plant foods.

During the 32-year follow-up period, 289 participants developed cardiovascular disease (including heart attack, stroke, heart failure, heart-related chest pain or clogged arteries anywhere in the body). However, those who scored in the top 20% on the long-term diet quality score were 52% less likely to develop cardiovascular disease, after controlling for factors such as age, sex, education, and a host of other relevant factors. Those who improved their diet score the most between 25 to 50 years old were 61% less likely to develop subsequent cardiovascular disease compared to those whose quality of diet declined between the same ages.

The team notes that the study included very few participants who were vegetarians, so the study didn’t record the effects of strict vegetarianism (which excludes all animal products, including meat, dairy and eggs) on cardiovascular health, but are representative of general dietary habits.

“A nutritionally rich, plant-centered diet is beneficial for cardiovascular health. A plant-centered diet is not necessarily vegetarian,” Choi said. “People can choose among plant foods that are as close to natural as possible, not highly processed. We think that individuals can include animal products in moderation from time to time, such as non-fried poultry, non-fried fish, eggs and low-fat dairy.”

That being said, the study is observational. In other words, it can show that certain dietary habits are correlated to certain health outcomes, but it can’t say for sure that one causes the the other. Still, the findings are relevant for all of us, and it’s better to err on the side of caution. So maybe help yourself to some extra veggies and greens during your next lunch break.

The first paper “Relationship Between a Plant‐Based Dietary Portfolio and Risk of Cardiovascular Disease: Findings From the Women’s Health Initiative Prospective Cohort Study” has been published in the Journal of the American Heart Association.

The second paper “Plant‐Centered Diet and Risk of Incident Cardiovascular Disease During Young to Middle Adulthood” has been published in the Journal of the American Heart Association.

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